Past Opposition To Same-Sex Marriage Could Hurt Republicans In The Future
A long history of opposing marriage equality could end up hurting Republicans even though that battle is over in this country.
While many Republicans continue to resist the idea of legal same-sex marriage in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, one gets the general impression that many Republican, even some of the most conservative members of that party, are in some sense glad that the Court has resolved the issue for them. After all, when you look at the polls it was becoming exceedingly clear that the GOP was out of step with the rest of the nation when on the issue of whether there should be a legal right for gays and lesbians to marry. While the number of Americans who support that idea continued to rise, even on the even of the decision Republicans and conservatives remained one of the few demographic groups where the majority opposed it. Those numbers had admittedly shrunk from where they were in the past, and when you looked polls of younger Republicans you found broad support for the idea, but the party itself took the position that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Now, with the Court having spoken, the issue is arguably irrelevant. Yes, we are still hearing Republican candidates suggest all number of silly ideas in this area and local and state officials have gone so far as to say government employees are free to ignore the Supreme Court, but to a large degree this is just pandering to the social conservatives in the base rather than a policy initiative that the GOP is going to pursue in the future.
Given all of that, having the issue of marriage equality off the table should be a good thing for Republicans since it will be one less issue that voters might be turned off by when the go vote in November 2016. As Harry Enten notes at FiveThirtyEight, though, there’s at least some evidence to suggest that the party’s long opposition to marriage equality, even in the face of its inevitable triumph, will end up hurting Republicans at the voting booth:
A look at public opinion on same-sex marriage and what drives party affiliation suggests that Cruz, Walker and the other candidates on the right may be risking the party’s appeal in the general election. The Republican Party’s opposition to same-sex marriage is one of the top positions that may have kept voters from identifying with and potentially voting for the GOP.
Polling generally suggests that same-sex marriage is not a top issue for most voters. A February CNN/ORC survey found that just 17 percent of Americans said the issue of gay marriage would be “extremely important” in choosing a candidate to support for president — the lowest of any of nine issues tested.
But digging deeper provides a different perspective. Beyond the importance voters place upon it directly, gay marriage may have symbolic power because of the messages it sends to voters about the parties.
I’ve taken a look at individual responses from two 2014 Pew Research Center surveys. I wanted to see which of 14 issues (ranging from abortion to gay marriage to size of government) provided the most information about a person’s party identification after controlling for demographic factors like age, education, income, race, and religious attendance
In the Republican column, the coefficient for gay marriage is large and negative, meaning that supporting it substantially reduces the likelihood that someone will identify as Republican. In fact, based on the regressions, the only variable more predictive of Republican identification is whether a person believes health care coverage is the government’s responsibility. Gay marriage is more important than classic “wedge issues” like guns or abortion in predicting whether someone identifies as a Republican.
Let’s be clear about what these results mean. What they say is that if I meet you at a picnic and you tell me that you support gay marriage, that gives me a lot of information about whether you’re a Republican — more than almost any other attitudinal question I might ask you.
It’s still difficult to prove that support for gay marriage causes people not to identify as Republican, as opposed to merely being correlated with it. Voterssometimes first choose a party they like and then adopt that party’s position on an issue. Gay marriage has been a fairly polarizing issue, so it is possible that some voters are merely choosing the position that lines up with their party. Still, at least our method is controlling for demographics. Views on gay marriage still seem to matter a lot even once you account for those.
There’s more at the link, including a chart that makes Enten’s argument exceedingly clear. The point, though, is that there is at least some evidence that marriage equality is an issue that helps to define how at least some voters feel about a political party and influence what they think about a candidate from that party. Although Enten doesn’t go into this level of detail, one would imagine that this is doubly true for younger voters for whom this issue has long been something of a “no-brainer” and the opposition to it has come across, to them at least, as mean and heartless toward a group of people who wanted nothing more than to enter into the same legal relationship that other loving couples have always been able to enter into. That’s one reason why, regardless of the legal argument that one could make, the analogy between Obergefell and the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia has seemed so obvious to many member of the public. On the surface, they both involve two people who were being denied by the state the ability to legalize their relationship. Viewed from that perspective, the position that most Republicans were holding right up until the Supreme Court decision was one that most if not all supporters of marriage equality were likely to see as unreasonable at best and bigoted at worst.
In the wake of the Court’s decision, it seems as though Republicans ought to start thinking about being a little more circumspect about how they approach this issue at the very least. Some candidates, such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, clearly understanding this given their reaction to the decision, which basically can be summarized as saying that they disagree with it but it is the law of the land and should be respected. Other candidates, though, such as Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum, are taking are far different and more defiant approach. Given the fact that these are candidates who have been pandering to the social conservatives from the beginning it’s entirely unsurprising, of course, but the danger for the party as a whole is that these voices become the most strident and that the public starts seeing the GOP as not only opposed to marriage equality but also willing to defy the nation’s highest Court. George Will does an excellent job of cataloging just how unhinged some of the responses from these candidates have been over the past week, and concludes that ”Sixteen months before the election, some candidates are becoming too unhinged to be plausible as conservative presidents.”
Since early polling is already showing that most American support the decision, vehement opposition to it isn’t necessarily a good long-term strategy for Republicans. At some point, it not only reinforces pubic perceptions that were created during the political fights over marriage, but it also casts the party as unwilling to accept defeat. Indeed, as we head into 2016 Republicans would probably be advised to do everything they can to get people to forget that they were on the wrong side of history on this issue.
This hard line response to Obergefell is obviously driven by the need of these candidates in particular to curry support from the hardest of the hard right wing of the Republican Party. Just based on the reactions I’ve seen online over the past week, many of these people are obviously not ready to accept the fact that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and candidates that take that position aren’t going to fare very well in primaries where these voters are dominant such as Iowa and South Carolina. Over time, perhaps, we’ll see the rhetoric die down a bit, and there may even by some Republicans who will suggest during the run up to the convention next year that the party should drop its platform position opposing marriage equality or advocating for the right of states to make same-sex marriage illegal. Bringing something like that about probably won’t be easy, but it will also likely get a far better reception than it did in 2012 when a similar effort was made by a small group of Republicans who were on the record supporting marriage equality. Given that, this issue may still be an albatross around the GOP’s neck in 2016, and given the fact that its the very voters who the party needs to attract that could be turned off by its history on this issue, that doesn’t bode well for whomever the Republican nominee ends up being.